LAPEER, Michigan — Ian English, in one fell swoop, redefined the term “commonplace” in education.
“I go to most classes to learn content, to learn things,” he said. “I come to this class to learn how to think … to process information, to ask questions. We have great discussions here all the time. It’s commonplace in this class.”
Ian is a junior in the AP Capstone program at Lapeer High, the only school in the state to offer the advanced diploma program. The course is AP Seminar taught by Bill Spruytte, a veteran AP instructor and exam reader for the College Board.
In the course, students are engaged in conversations about complicated, and even controversial, real-world issues; they are taught to approach issues from different perspectives. The topics are meant to be varied and applicable to a multitude of academic disciplines.
“The class has freedom from a strict curriculum,” said junior Zach Fritz, who will study engineering at UM-Ann Arbor upon graduation. “It allows the class to morph into different things for different individuals.”
AP Seminar is the first of two courses in the AP Capstone program. Next year, most of the 46 students in Spruytte’s two Seminar classes will advance to AP Research, the second course in the program. Students who earn scores of 3 or higher in AP Seminar and AP Research and on four additional AP Exams of their choosing, will receive the AP Capstone Diploma. This signifies outstanding academic achievement and attainment of college-level academic and research skills.
These students have come to learn more about each other through their individual and collective work as researchers, presenters and, in many cases, persuaders. Through it all they’ve formed a bond as students who, from top to bottom, are fully invested in their future as learners.
Stephen Bonesteel, just a half hour after presenting the findings from his research on Search Engine Optimization (SEO), shared his hope that the class would stay together, and take this experience all the way to graduation.
“The first couple weeks were touch and go, but as it’s gone on I feel that this class has become a good community,” he said. “We’re a family in here.”
Beyond the camaraderie the experience has engendered, students are gaining many of the skills necessary to be successful after high school, shaking off some of the fear that can accompany college-level rigor.
“Out of all the classes you can take in high school, I think this one is the best preparation for college,” said junior Tim Wurster. “(College professors) aren’t going to hand you a work sheet and ask you to fill in the blanks. This class is about attaining life skills than can be maintained over time.”
Delve in. Dissect. Defend.
Back in February, students were instructed to delve into an issue closely related to a larger topic – in this case, intelligence. They had to identify sources, research the findings of others, come up with findings of their own and defend them.
“Students were asked to approach intelligence through some very different perspectives,” Spruytte said. “For example, there were articles about coding, bilingualism, what it means to be a genius, and even one entitled ‘Why Dancing is Good for Your Brain.’”
After reading and discussing each article, students identified a “jumping off point” in one of the sources and crafted a 2,000-word argumentative research paper. The paper, along with a presentation and oral defense, accounts for a sizable chunk of the grade.
Elizabeth Pence, a junior, tackled a very controversial topic in a well-reasoned and articulate manner that, she said, could have been argued from multiple viewpoints. She discussed how faith and feminism aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive worldviews.
Bonesteel, in his presentation, mentioned that he is applying some of the things he learned in his SEO research to one of his own business ventures.
Thomas McCaffrey presented a historical analysis of the peaks and pitfalls of being a genius. (Editor’s note: I’m unfamiliar with this phenomenon.)
Ironically, English presented on Esperanto.
The goal of the exercise was not to take a stance and then seek out evidence to buttress your stance, but to follow research where it leads; a process that concludes with confirmation rather than simple affirmation.
For junior Mickey Coulter, AP Seminar put more tools in his academic toolbox than any other.
“This class taught me how to research,” Mickey said. “I didn’t really know a whole lot about writing papers, branching off into different subjects. I’ve learned a lot.”
Next year, these students will be assessed on an academic paper, a public presentation, and an oral defense of their research and presentation. The paper will be a cool 5,000 words with a 20-minute public defense.
They’ll be ready.